Character Building in an Outdoor Classroom
By Cathleen Ann Steg
Photographs by Walter P. Calahan
In Winston-Salem, N.C., the local school district and Scout council have formed a dynamic partnership using the BSA's Learning for Life program for character education in classrooms and at special camp sessions.
- School-Scouting Partnership Is a Key to Council Success
- Learning for Lifeand About Scouting
- Students, Researchers Agree: Learning for Life's Impact Is Real
It looked like a junior high class picnic at Camp Raven Knob, with lively students in baseball caps, sunglasses, and sandals. It sounded like a picnic, too, as the happy shrieks of wet oarsmen carried across the lake. It even smelled like a picnic, once the adults started cooking chili dogs.
But these seventh graders from Wiley Middle School in Winston-Salem, N.C., were not here just for the fun of it. They were learning. Learning for Life.
'We're building character here'
"It looks like fun, but we're building character here," said Wayne Brown, assistant Scout executive for the Old Hickory Council.
Brown, who has helped introduce the Learning for Life program to schools in North Carolina since 1991, gives high praise to outdoor experiences such as this balmy April event.
A subsidiary of the BSA, Learning for Life supports schools in their efforts to prepare students for the complex world they face. It also brings the values of the Scouting program into the classroom, through a series of grade-appropriate lesson plans that support the school curriculum.
Even better, though, said Brown, "We take the classroom and put it outdoors here at our council camp."
Throughout the school year, Wiley students experience Learning for Life program components in class. Brown and the others on the Learning for Life committee tailor the program to meet teachers' needs.
And several times a year, Wiley seventh graders get to take to the hills near Mount Airy, in northern North Carolina northwest of Winston-Salem, and challenge themselves even more.
The power of teamwork
This spring outing began in the shade of Raven Knob's chapel, where the Wiley students assembled before breaking into teams.
The 100 students were solemn while assistant principal Elaine Pegram led them in a moment of silence "to give thanks for the gifts that we've been given, that we can be here today and be with our friends." They quickly snapped back into lively junior high form when the sound of bullfrogs from the nearby lake broke the silence and the mood.
After dividing into small groups, the students headed off with their adult advisers for the first of eight activity areas. These ranged from rowboating to archery to a low-course exercise in the Project COPE (Challenging Outdoor Personal Experience) area.
Math teacher Fran Travison, leader of the first group to row the boats on Raven Knob's lake, explained that the activities were chosen with challenge in mind.
"Boating is fun, sure, but some of these kids are afraid of the water," she said as she prepared to set out with a trio of girls in one of the boats. "The students get to try things here that we just can't do at school, and they work together as a team to conquer them."
Skimming the water with clean, quick strokes, a boat of boys conquered whatever fears they might have had and easily beat all other teams in a race to the dock.
"We just had the power, the team power," explained students Nick Johnson and Darryl Tuttle.
Dealing with diversity
Working together, even if not with your usual group of friends, is one of the lessons taught in the outdoor classroom. Students may choose one or two friends for their group, but the teachers create the majority of each team.
"Our school is quite diverse," said principal Ron Rash. "So we make sure the teams are diverse, too, with students interacting with some kids they probably don't spend much time with back at school. You really see the benefits back in the halls."
The improved interaction between various groups of students is the main difference between Wiley and other middle schools that do not use the Learning for Life program, especially the outdoor camp session.
Even more, though, "it's the relationship of the kids with the adults in the building," Rash noted. "We can talk to these kids a little differently out here; and when they go back, they will know the adults better, and respect us more."
Total school staff involvement
Rash is committed to including all his staff in the outdoor Learning for Life event. Teachers, secretaries, and housekeeping staff are rotated between the fall and spring outings.
At the spring session, Richard Austin, head of housekeeping at Wiley, ran the Project COPE low-course events. While helping teams resolve their toughest logistical problems, he showed an uncanny ability to give just the right degree of encouragement.
When a group of boys had difficulty figuring out the best way to get each other through a suspended tire swing, Austin refused to tell them how it should be done. Instead, he pushed them to search for solutions themselves.
"You guys are old enough and smart enough to figure this one out; I know it," he encouraged them. When they finally invented a working solution, Austin beamed at them, yelling: "All right! All right!" as the last boy dived through the tire.
Though some events were pure fun, students found themselves pushed to the limit in others. Danielle Prysock lost a shoe maneuvering down a steep hill while roped together with the rest of her team. Holding her bare foot gingerly, she exclaimed: "I almost fainted! My feet are dirty; my shoe slid off; I just got too scared."
Moments later, however, Danielle was helping her team create a bucket brigade in a challenge to fill a leaky barrel with water from a stream.
"Hey, teamworklet's try some teamwork!" she called out, soothing her feet in the cool stream as she handed two buckets of water to another girl.
Enhancing school life
Positive character traits, such as the perseverance so aptly demonstrated by Danielle, are applied in real-life situations in the Learning for Life program, according to Bill Moser, Winston-Salem/Forsyth County health and character education specialist.
"It's very exciting to see the school and the BSA working together to build character," Moser said as he watched the students at work.
The daily life of these students also is greatly enhanced by what they accomplish at Raven Knob. "Junior high social pressures disappear when students have to help haul each other up over a 12-foot-high wall in the woods," Moser explained.
"Instead of acting older than they really are and talking to only a certain group of kids, they can have fun here and behave naturally," added English teacher Michele Hamby.
What happens on that wall, though, is a lot more than just natural behavior. Though some of the groups managed to grab the attached rope and scamper over, others found it impossible to get every member over the top.
Instead of losing patience with team members who couldn't make it, one group of boys chose to work together, straining their muscles, screaming encouragement, inventing more and more ways to heave the last member over the wall.
Did they make it?
"No," acknowledged Richard Austin with a grin. "I knew that group was doomed from the start. But you know, they were about the best group all daythey were all such good sports."
Finally, as the tired students boarded their buses, Learning for Life staffers enjoyed soft drinks on the porch of the hand-hewn log cabin that serves as Raven Knob's headquarters. They expressed satisfaction that strong messages about character and life skills had come home to the students in every one of the day's activities. Perhaps the strongest message of all, in the words of teacher Fran Travison, was also the simplest:
"Enjoy lifefor the good of it."
Contributing editor Cathleen Ann Steg is a volunteer Scout leader. She lives in Fairfax, Va.
School-Scouting Partnership Is a Key to Council Success
The partnership between school and Scout councilvividly demonstrated at the Wiley Middle School in Winston-Salem, N.C.is a key ingredient of Learning for Life's success within the Old Hickory Council.
"The school believes what we're doing with the kids is important," says Russ Williams, associate national director of the BSA's Learning for Life Division.
And the entire Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School District seems to agree, he adds, pointing out that Superintendent of Schools Donald Martin was one of the visitors during the Camp Raven Knob outing.
Support from a school principal is also crucial. At Wiley Middle School, principal Ron Rash does more than just authorize the use of the Learning for Life program in classroomshe actively participates in the outings.
More importantly, according to school district health and character education specialist Bill Moser, Rash exemplifies the values of the program.
"He makes these character traits come to life," Moser explains. "He epitomizes them for the kids."
Wiley school staff support makes a big difference, too, says Kevin Cheek, the council's district executive for Learning for Life.
"The teacher support in the outdoor program is exceptional with Wiley. The teachers come to Raven Knob and try out the challenges themselves, and they all fall in love with the program.
"And when teachers love what they're doing, that helps the students even more."
Learning for Lifeand About Scouting
Learning for Life is a classroom-based program used by school systems in kindergarten through 12th grade. Its participants are not registered BSA members, and their organization and program do not involve traditional Scouting activities.
However, events like the Wiley school outing, when held at a council camp, can showcase some of Scouting's traditional programs.
"This outing is a great way to reach Boy Scout-age kids," says council program director Keith Bobbitt. He is always ready to give students information about Scouting, Venturing, and Exploring during their day at Raven Knob.
Old Hickory Council Scout Executive Harold (Hal) Murray says growth in the traditional Scouting program is due in part to the exposure Scouting receives through Learning for Life.
"I credit Learning for Life with the fact that our council has achieved balanced growth for the last four years," Murray says.
And it's not only students who sign up.
"You'd be surprised how many of our adult volunteers have come to us because of Learning for Life," says Wayne Brown. "[Principal] Ron Rash is the council's vice president for Learning for Life, and [vice principal] Elaine Pegram is now the vice president of membership in the council. I've even had a policeman assigned to one of our schools later volunteer to be a Crime Prevention merit badge counselor for the Scouts."
Students, Researchers Agree: Learning for Life's Impact Is Real
In October 1995, Scouting magazine profiled the Learning for Life program at S.P. Morton Middle School in Franklin, Va., highlighting a camping event with an at-risk student group.
Morton teacher Donna Powell was convinced that the program helped those students who needed to make serious changes in their school careers. But how are they doing, four years later?
In May 1999, four former Morton Learning for Life participants, now in high school, met with Powell to share their stories.
"I couldn't believe how much these kids had grown up," Powell said. "I have vivid memories of how traumatic report card days were back then. And now, they're real good kids."
As a group, the students' grades are up, they are involved in positive school activities (such as team sports), and they have taken on challenging coursework. Some have held part-time jobs.
Jamaal Ashburn: "Learning for Life helped us to grow up. My attitude is more positive now. I've played varsity basketball and taken building trades and marketing classes. I plan to go to a community college, then a four-year college, and hope to get a technology job."
Antoine Edmonds: "[Project] COPE was an inspiration for my life. I got along with the kids, and no one got into a fight." He's taken high school computer classes and plans to major in computer science at a community college.
Constance Baker: "[Project] COPE helped me be more responsible and do better in my classes because I had something to look forward to. It helped me overcome my fears, and I'm not shy now." She has a part-time job and is taking carpentry vocational classes as well as academic ones at school.
Kuamsi Matin: He plans to go to college and major in a field related to engineering. A starting linebacker for the football team, he has also played basketball and held a part-time job. What did he learn from Learning for Life? "No matter what people's differences are, they need to work them out."
Solid statistical evidence
Learning for Life's impact is also validated by solid statistical evidence.
"Character Building With Learning for Life," a study conducted for the BSA by Syndics Research Corp. and Dr. Kevin Ryan of Boston University, compared 2,500 students nationwide. Students in second, fourth, and sixth grades were paired into Learning for Life and non-Learning for Life classes in 59 urban, suburban, and rural schools. No school had ever taken part in Learning for Life.
More results of "Character Building With Learning for Life" are available from Learning for Life, 1325 W. Walnut Hill Ln., P.O. Box 152079, Irving, TX 75015-2079, (972) 580-2433; onlinehttp://www.learning-for-life.org.
March-April 2000 Table of Contents
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